“You do what? …….. With who? …………… Why?”
Twenty years ago, when I was first developing a practice in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW) I got rather used to hearing these questions, usually right after the, “So what is it that you do?” question. While admittedly there were the days when part of me was tempted to say “I’m an accountant” and be done with it, mostly I really enjoyed responding to these questions. Young and enthusiastic, I delighted in the opportunity to share my passion for these new and exciting ways to bring healing and growth to a wide range of people, while at the same time honoring and protecting the inherent nature and wellbeing of the animals I loved and respected.
Two decades later there are still lots of questions, but they appear to be somewhat different. With the explosion of information availability and sharing made possibly through the growth of the internet and social media, and the accompanying explosion in our field of a myriad of new programs and approaches, most people have now heard of the practice of involving animals in the helping professions. I now hear: “How do I get certified?” “Do you have to be a counsellor to do this work?” “Is the animal a tool? Or a partner?” and “What do you actually DO in a session?” These have become the new questions.
But as I reflect, a little less young now but usually still enthusiastic, I wonder how much have the underlying questions really changed? Are we not still asking, Who? What? and Why? So I’m going to return to basics here and answer those ‘old’ questions again, with the added perspective of my last twenty years working in the field.
WHAT are Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW)?
Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society) define AAT as being goal oriented, structured and planned, and delivered by a service professional. Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) on the other hand, can be delivered by non-professionals and do not require treatment goals. Thus a speech therapist who builds a client session plan around interactions with a dog is doing AAT, while a volunteer taking a cat into a nursing home to visit with residents is doing AAA. Both fall within the broader term of Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) and the term ‘Pet Therapy’ is generally discouraged.
Equine Facilitated Wellness is a little harder to pin down as the key players and terminology have changed and evolved considerably over the years. You will hear lots of terms out there including Equine Facilitated (or Assisted) Psychotherapy, Equine Facilitated (or Assisted) Learning and Equine Facilitated Counselling. While the psychotherapy terms are more commonly used in the US, in Canada the term ‘Equine Facilitated Wellness’ has become accepted in most arenas as an umbrella term to include approaches to working with people and horses with both educational (Equine Facilitated Learning) and counselling (Equine Facilitated Mental Health) goals.
So now we have defined some terms, WHAT does the work actually look like? Again there is much variety with a wide range of professionals working with various species of animals, with different client populations and needs. Even within my own practice, Healing Hooves, there is much variety as we work with horses, cats, dogs (and occasionally chickens) with a wide range of clients and professionals in counselling, personal growth and professional development contexts.
Perhaps some examples will help
Our group sessions at Healing Hooves start off in an office like any other group session, to check in with clients, establish safety and provide session direction. But the barn cats making their rounds of the group for cuddles make it much easier to build the context we need, and we soon move outside to the horses, usually with the cats in tow. If we are exploring boundaries that day, perhaps with a group of teenage girls with sexual abuse histories, we may talk about boundaries as other counselling groups would, but the most powerful moment is when a client finds the courage to ask the 1000lb horse to step out of the space she has defined for herself. To get here, she may first need to experience some of the same alarm and helplessness she has come to expect in human relationships, but here it is safer to feel, name and explore those emotions with the animals who she senses understand her pain without judging her, and to accept support from the people who work with them. Asserting her boundary with the horse then opens the possibility to her starting to do the same in other relationships.
On another day we may be working with a child who is stricken with guilt and shame over the time he ‘lost it’ and struck out at a younger sibling. Sitting in the arena with Teddy, our highly mischievous Shetland pony, we read a story about a time when Teddy also acted impulsively out of frustration, and hurt a herd member he cared about. Tears rolling down his face this client tells Teddy, “It’s OK Teddy, you made a mistake. We all do that sometimes, it does not make you bad, we still love you so much, and we always will!” The message we had been trying to give this client about himself sinks in on multiple levels as he throws his arms around Teddy’s neck and soaks his mane with those much needed tears.
That same client, while helping us return Teddy to the field, sees Maggie, our young border collie, furiously chasing her egg shaped ball round the yard. Pausing to watch her barking at the ball my client looks up at me, slightly bewildered. I explain how Maggie has instincts and impulses, often overwhelming for her, to chase horses, and that it is my job to prevent her from doing this, for her and the horses’ safety! While Maggie usually follows these ‘rules’ she does not always like them and chasing her ‘egg’ is a great way for her to let out the resulting frustration and energy. After doing this for a while it is so much easier for her to listen, and to behave in ways which work better for her and everyone else. As we continue on with Teddy, my young client says quietly, “Wish they made those eggs for people”. This opened a door to help him, and his parents, find the equivalent of that egg for him; to recognise that he, just like Teddy and Maggie, has times when his impulses and feelings get very big, and risk coming out in ways which do not work; because finding alternate outlets at those times could help keep him out of all sorts of trouble.
WHO is involved in these fields?
Firstly there are the animals. At Healing Hooves we have eight horses, three cats, two chickens and a border collie! In the past we have also worked with bunnies and donkeys, and other programs work with many other animals including llamas, goats and sheep. While I prefer working with mammals, due to the shared emotional brain and the cuddle factor, there are programs who work with birds and even reptiles. The critical considerations here are physical and emotional safety of all involved, including the animals themselves. All therapy animals should be trained in whatever interactions you plan them to participate in and be screened as safe for the population they will work with. And as they cannot send a letter of complaint to your HR department or ask for a new job description, it is up to their human facilitators to make sure the animals are happy in their work and that it is good for them too. In AAT animals can be certified and most visitation type programs require this. In EFW this is covered in the first level of training (the EFW-Canada Explorations Training) where the physical and emotional safety and wellbeing of all involved in the work are explored in depth. A key aspect of this is how we view the role of the animal, and at Healing Hooves our animals are so much more than ‘tools’, they are our partners and co-therapists, sentient beings who bring themselves to the work every bit as much as we do.
Next we have our clients. Who can benefit from AAT and EFW is again a huge question with many answers! Much depends on the focus and credentials of the team delivering the service. However research has indicated that these approaches can be particularly helpful with clients suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress, behavioural challenges, attachment struggles and relationship conflict. Survivors of abuse and trauma, including sexual assault, also frequently find this approach helpful. At Healing Hooves many of our referrals are for people who have found that more traditional approaches have not worked for them. The child or teen who refuses to attend play or talk therapy may be willing and able to engage with an animal present; and the adult who feels ‘stuck’ in other modalities may find breakthrough when interacting with a four legged therapist.
Finally, what about the people who deliver the services? Again there is such a broad range of therapies and approaches I could not possibly cover them all. Since this article is for counsellors that is where I will focus. Do you need to be a certified counsellor to do counselling work with animals? Yes you do! I am likely preaching to the choir here but there are sadly a staggering number of programs delivering counselling without a counsellor, by involving animals and calling it something else. Professional bodies such as Pet Partners and EFW-Canada work hard to address this by defining the difference between AAT and AAA, and between Equine Facilitated Mental Health and Equine Facilitated Learning, and defining different training and certification requirements for each. Does this mean any certified counsellor can start practicing AAT or EFW? No they can’t! Or at least they shouldn’t, but again it is hard to regulate. It is my firm opinion that people delivering AAT or EFW should have training and certification in both the approach they follow, and with the animals and client base they work with.
But WHY involve animals in your life or work?
It adds cost and complication, so what benefits make it worthwhile?
Research shows that simply the presence of a friendly animal can have positive effects on our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. For example, in one study, children asked to read aloud in public experienced significantly less stress when a dog (who they did not know or touch) was in the room, and other studies have shown that looking at fish in an aquarium before going for a root canal is as effective in reducing stress as hypnotherapy. Add contact (and the deciding factor here seems to be a positive connection or attachment) with an animal, and the benefits grow. It is now a well proven fact that having an animal in our life can mean fewer trips to the doctor, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and decreases the chance of us dying from a heart attack. Children who have contact with animals tend to have higher self-esteem, be more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs or chores, and develop more nurturing behavior. They also tend to be more empathetic towards both animals and people. Pet-owning seniors cope better with stress, are more active and less lonely. While animals can enhance our physical and emotional health at any time, this bond is particularly powerful when we are feeling vulnerable, stressed or are facing challenge, loss or major change in our lives, i.e. the times when we may go to counselling.
WHY do I involve animals in my practice?
Back in graduate school I clearly remember thinking, as I learned about the three ‘Person Centred’ conditions required for therapeutic growth to arise, “that’s what I experience with my horses!” And this is what I aim to share with my clients:
Unconditional Positive Regard
While I aspire to offer these to my clients myself, I invariably fall short. And then there are the clients who are simply too wounded and defended to believe and accept my offering. But very often those clients can accept and believe it, that ‘invitation to exist in my presence, just the way you are’, from one of my animals. This is what I believe creates the context for counselling and helps keep it safe and therapeutic for my clients. Building upon this foundation the animals provide me with a multitude of opportunities, similar to the examples I shared above, to discuss things indirectly through the animals’ stories and experiences, to explore things experientially with the animals, and to come into the here and now, where our animals spend their lives, and where healing and growth is most likely to arise.
Incorporating animals into your life and work can clearly take many different forms and offer new opportunities for both you and your clients. While there are many important considerations, including getting the right training for your team and ensuring the wellbeing of your animal partners, the potential benefits to you and your clients are, in my opinion, well worth the investment.
If you have any what, why, who or any others questions, that I have not answered for you here, I invite you to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up for one of our trainings to find out more!
(written for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, March 2016 and updated November 2020)